In today’s world, businesses in all industries across the globe are being forced to be more efficient and streamline processes.
One such solution is intelligent workflows: automated or semi-automated business processes that are enhanced by technologies such as AI, machine learning, and data analytics to improve decision-making, efficiency, and outcomes. Unlike traditional workflows, which often involve a series of predefined steps and rules, intelligent workflows can adapt to changing conditions, analyse vast amounts of data, and even make decisions to optimise process performance.
Defining Intelligent Workflows: A paradigm shift
“Traditional automation integrates actions where variation is contained and decisions can be more easily programmed. It is more rigid,” explains Cassiano Surek, CTO at design agency Beyond. “Intelligent workflows combine automation, AI and analytics to adapt to different conditions, adjusting themselves as environments evolve. A good example is continuously training a model to detect abnormalities as they appear: new ones will come up over time and the workflow will evolve accordingly.”
Echoing Surek's sentiments, James Dodkins, Tech Evangelist at Pegasystems, characterises traditional workflows as akin to a “well-worn path,” whereas intelligent workflows “forge their own path.” These workflows, Dodkins explains, use smart tech like AI to constantly learn, adapt, and optimise processes, reacting to new data and changing circumstances on the fly.
“They’re not merely about automating processes; they’re about optimising them, learning from data patterns, and subsequently, providing recommendations or automating decisions to enable more agile, efficient, and effective operations,” he says.
Ben Canning, Senior Vice President, Product Experiences at Smartsheet, offers a complementary view. He states that traditional workflow systems like “email, chat, spreadsheets” have already transformed work, but adding automation and intelligence “can take efficiency and productivity to a whole new level.”
“Increasingly, intelligent workflow systems leverage the power of AI to better understand the kind of work you’re doing and make smart decisions and recommendations about it, which empowers non-technical people to implement advanced automation that can help them work much more efficiently and consistently.”
Business challenges: Complex decision-making and operational efficiency
As businesses grapple with multifaceted challenges, intelligent workflows are increasingly vital. “Intelligent workflows can help businesses scale their work by eliminating repetitive tasks, which frees up their employees’ time to focus on the work that matters most,” Canning describes. “They can also help create consistent execution. Teams waste so much time reinventing processes and trying to re-learn how things are done. Intelligent workflows can eliminate that overhead so people can repeat what’s working without starting from scratch, allowing them to focus more on value realisation.”
As Dodkins notes, intelligent workflows target several issues like operational inefficiencies, siloed data, and suboptimal decision-making. “They strive to automate and optimise processes, ensuring resources are utilised effectively and that decisions are informed by rich, contextual data,” he says. “Moreover, they aim to foster a seamlessly integrated digital ecosystem wherein data is readily accessible.”
Simon Morris, Area Vice President, Consulting at ServiceNow, points out that in the face of “macroeconomic challenges, such as inflation and supply chain shortages,” intelligent workflows can be a tangible solution. “Intelligent workflows help companies connect all areas of the enterprise by taking data into coordinated action, which streamlines traditional, siloed enterprise operations.”
Impact on employees: From drudgery to value-driven tasks
For Surek, the advent of intelligent workflows means employees can allocate their time to roles “where AI does not excel, like building trust with another human being.”
Dodkins extends this argument by suggesting that for employees, intelligent workflows are like an extra pair of hands.
“Intelligent workflows manage the routine, repetitive tasks, freeing up individuals to focus on more interesting, creative, and value-driven work,” he says. “Intelligent workflows also equip employees with critical data insights at the right crunch moments, enhancing their decision-making capabilities.”
Ultimately, as Canning describes, the process allows employees to focus on higher-value work and move away from tedious, repetitive tasks.
“Intelligent workflows eliminate the drudgery of doing everything manually so employees can focus on higher value work,” he says. “They also eliminate errors by maintaining process consistency. And, they can help non-technical employees feel more confident in their ability to implement new workflows.”
Integration challenges: Legacy systems and cultural adaptation
Integrating intelligent workflows presents a unique set of challenges. As Dodkins explains, it’s vital to make sure the new intelligent workflow solutions work well with legacy systems to keep data flowing and operations running smoothly, while safeguarding data accuracy and consistency across all systems is paramount to leverage the true potential of intelligent workflows. Beyond technical aspects, Dodkins emphasises the need for the right culture to embrace intelligent workflows.
“Orchestrating an organisational culture that welcomes and adapts to digital transformation, by investing in employee training and change management initiatives, is pivotal to successfully implementing intelligent workflows.”
Morris offers a pragmatic view, suggesting that the objective isn't to replace all existing infrastructure. Rather, businesses should look for solutions that ‘seamlessly integrate’ into what already exists and helps get more value from the data.
“As companies navigate the uncertain economic landscape, getting more value, faster, is vital.”
Future technologies: Preparing for the next wave
Surek believes that Generative AI will “enhance the ability to analyse data and detect patterns for decision making,” serving as a potent tool in the intelligent workflow arsenal.
“Businesses are already gathering an enormous amount of data from the various operations and integrations that happen with staff and clients, so ensuring that the data collected can be easily accessed and analysed will be key to realising the full potential of these future technologies,” he says.
Morris speaks to the central role of AI, saying that businesses “must take advantage of the opportunities of AI technology and utilise general-purpose LLMs which are built for enterprise-level use cases.
“This includes building an architecture that can accommodate large volumes of data for processing and utilising best-in-class algorithms that can sort through and act upon that data.”
Canning offers a more strategic perspective on preparation. He advises businesses to consult their employees and IT teams to assess their current workflows and ask them where they feel there are bottlenecks and inefficiencies. This will not only prepare the organisation for adopting intelligent workflows, but also ensure that they are tailored to solve specific challenges effectively.
“Gen AI for the sake of gen AI isn’t the way forward– instead, consult your employees and IT teams,” he says. “They’re the ones who will use these tools day in and day out.”